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What now for Germany's remaining nuclear waste?

April 25, 2023

Germany's nuclear power might be gone, but nuclear waste isn't going anywhere. The search for a location for a final repository remains a challenge.

Man standing on bridge overlooking nuclear power plant Isar 2
Nuclear power plant Isar 2 was shut down on April 15Image: Wolfgang Maria Weber/IMAGO

Nuclear energy in Germany has been history since mid-April. At one time, up to 20 nuclear power plants fed electricity into the German grid. But all that is over now. The last three nuclear power plants ended their operations on April 15.

To Germany's Environment Minister Steffi Lemke of the Green Party, the date marks a new dawn: "I think we should now put all our energy into pushing forward photovoltaics, wind power storage, energy saving, and energy efficiency, and stop these backward-looking debates," she said in a recent radio interview.

April 15 also effectively ended a decadeslong political dispute in Germany. In light of the tense situation on the energy market due to Russia's war in Ukraine, there are still voices demanding that nuclear power be extended

The waste issue

And yet, the issue of nuclear energy will linger for Germany for some time yet, as the reactors still have to be dismantled, and the final disposal of the radioactive nuclear waste has not yet been clarified.

Like almost all other countries that have operated, or continue to operate nuclear power plants, Germany has yet to find a place to safely store the spent fuel. Currently, Germany's nuclear waste is in interim storage at the sites of abandoned power plants, but the law requires that nuclear waste be safely stored in underground repositories for several millennia.

"The interim storage facilities are designed to last for quite some time," Wolfram König, president of the Federal Office for the Safety of Nuclear Waste Disposal (BASE), told DW. "They are supposed to bridge the time until a final repository is available. … What we are looking for is geological depth, a suitable layer of salt, in granite or in clay rock, which will ensure that no radioactive substances reach the surface again for an indefinitely long period of time."

Steffi Lemke speaking into a microphone
Environment minister Steffi Lemke thinks it's time to move onImage: Hiro Komae/AP Photo/picture alliance

Location, location, location

That's a principle that Germany shares with all of the 30 or so countries that still operate, or have operated nuclear power plants in the past: Radioactive waste is to be disposed of underground. But where exactly? For a long time, Gorleben, located in the Wendland region of Lower Saxony, northeastern Germany, was the site most favored by politicians looking for an underground repository for nuclear waste.

But Gorleben became the location of fierce protests against nuclear energy, so politicians decided a few years ago to abandon the site. Now, the search is on throughout Germany, with more than 90 possible sites under consideration. "We can and must assume that the search process in Germany, with the construction of a final repository, will take approximately as long as we have used nuclear energy, namely 60 years," König said.

Meanwhile, the dismantling of Germany's 20 or so nuclear power plants that have been built will also take time. That, according to König, is the responsibility of their operators, who estimate it could take between 10 and 15 years.

Protesters lay across train tracks as police struggle to remove them
The Gorleben nuclear waste site was eventually abandoned after several years of protests, one of which was pictured nearby in 2011Image: BREUEL-BILD/picture alliance

A worldwide headache

So far, reactors have been shut down in Italy, Kazakhstan, and Lithuania, while other countries, including the United Arab Emirates and Belarus, are building new nuclear plants.

But the permanent, safe storage of radioactive waste is an unresolved issue everywhere.

Finland is furthest along in its planning. In a report by German public broadcaster ARD, Vesa Lakaniemi, administrative head in the municipality of Eurajoki, southern Finland, talked about the construction of the final storage facility for nuclear waste in his town: "Whoever profits from electricity must also take responsibility for the waste. And that's how it is in Finland." The estimated construction costs for the Eurajoki repository is €3.5 billion ($3.8 billion).

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), there are currently 422 nuclear reactors in operation worldwide, with an average age of about 31 years. The recent "World Nuclear Industry Status Report" said that, despite a few countries building new nuclear power stations, there was no evidence of a "nuclear renaissance." In 1996, some 17.5% of the world's energy was produced in nuclear reactors — in 2021 it was below 10%. Nevertheless, the radioactive legacy will keep Germany preoccupied for many years to come.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.


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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau